The Polynesian atoll

Fakarava (French Polynesia), 06.09.2013

As a child I remember to have spent endless hours admiring a globe we had in the living room of my parents’ house. It was lit from the inside to show the areas of the earth covered with sun and those in darkness, depending on how the date and time were set. I always wondered how the other side of this planet would look like, those places in the southern Pacific Ocean the farthest away from Europe. Reading about atolls dispersed in thousands of km of vast ocean, palm fringed beaches and turquoise seas, mystic mountains rising high out of nowhere in the water got my imagination carried away. When some weeks ago I sat in a hotel room contemplating what to do with a few of weeks of sudden time off, a look at Google maps drew my attention to this area again. It was so close, just some hours by plane, like never before and likely not again for a long time. It was outside of Eurasia geographically and therefore wouldn’t fit with the scope of this trip. But hey, it was an opportunity that presented itself to fulfil a dream of a lifetime. One of the learnings of this journey has been also to seize these opportunities whenever they appear within reach to make the best out of each moment. So the geographical dogma went overboard in seconds and the travel planning began!

DSC_0004An Aircalin flight left Noumea Tontouta airport the evening of the 4 of september. In just about five hours we reached Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia at 04:20 – of the same day! 04.09.2013 has been the longest day of my life, spanning 45h in total. This is because the line that separates daytimes runs somewhere along the Pacific. While New Caledonia was many hours ahead of Europe, Polynesia was many hours behind. Still dizzy from the short night up in the air I passed the ukulele band at the terminal entrance welcoming passengers and didn’t really wake up before reaching the cafeteria on the other end, sitting in front of an automatic machine brewed cappuccino in a deserted and run down airport. First signs of life came up only with the arrival of the 05:00 plane from Paris/LA, when suddenly shops opened, tour guides appeared and then started leading the tourists to money exchanges and buses. The robust Polynesians looked big beneath the Europeans, Americans and Asians streaming out of the terminal, flower garlands around their neck, white skinned and exhausted from their flight but with a smile on their face.

I left the luggage at the airport, jumped on a bus into town (20 mins ride, 200 XPF) and got off in the harbour in Papeete. The town was still asleep, few people strolled along the empty streets covered in the gold of the first sunshine of a new day. Across the street from an old colonial building, surrounded by a fenced and well kept lawn, I found an open café. A ham omelette with thin french coffee saved me from starvation, and activated my energy to tour the center of town. Compared to Noumea, buildings seemed quite run down, but it also promised to be a much livelier city, with more small stores in a bigger area, not just square streets, and plenty of surf shops, bars and restaurants. As I sat in a park on the waterfront surrounded by early bird sports fans jogging along, I admired the island of Moorea with its high rising mountains at a distance. A sailing boat left the harbour, its bow cutting the calm water, to venture out into the sea for a day of bliss. As the city started to wake up, traffic intensified, stores opened, people came out on the street. I toured it some more time, and it confirmed the impression I got earlier in the morning. People were friendly, here and there an ukulele band played on a street or market entrance, women wore flowers in their hair, the air was filled with lightness.

At some point I had to leave to catch my plane. The ATR-72 took off shortly after noon for a flight over an endless blue desert. The weather was exceptionally good, with few clouds hindering the view of the ocean. We passed some atolls of different size, the beauty of the islands and turquoise water on their inside was stunning. Some of them also had micro-islands within their lagoon. I couldn’t get enough staring at these marvellous places. We briefly landed on Rangiroa to drop off over half the passengers, before taking off for another half hour of blue ocean and palm covered atolls. From tiny Fakarava airport, a fifteen minutes drive took me and a dutch couple with a baby to the Tokerau Village, a pension with several bungalows in a beautiful garden right on the inner shore of the atoll. As I stepped out of the van the sea stole all my attention. I dropped the bags in my bungalow, got the shorts out and went for a dive. I expected the water to be freezing, but it wasn’t at all. The reef started right away, fish were all around, the transparent water started to convert to blue several meters ahead. Paradise! With a kayak I went exploring the area, paddling down for quite a while along the coast. Several times I had to stop, to admire the beauty all around. 360 degrees of fantastic nature, from the wide sea in all it’s shades of blue and the sun reflecting on it, to the lighter coloured reef and the submarine flora and fauna, and the white sand beach lined with tall palms, elegantly reaching into the almost cloudless sky. On the way back I took the kayak closer to the shore, and since it had no real draft it slid easily over any rock. Fish in all colours, coral, shells, sea urchins – you name it, here it was right under me.

DSC_0007 DSC_0013In the afternoon I organised a boat trip for the following day together with Rikkert and Gabrielle (the dutch couple that had come with me in the airport shuttle) and their 7 months old daughter Sara. Over dinner we got to know each other. Rikkert had been in Fakarava years ago, on a sailing boat from Panama to New Zealand, and had plenty to tell about this atoll as well as so many other places in the Pacific. Getting to know interesting people while travelling is really great. The next morning after breakfast we got on a motor boat in the resort next door, along with four other guests, the captain and a friend of his. For over an hour we seemed to fly over the vast blue sea, along the atoll’s eastern shore, the wind in our hair and sun on the faces. Pretty much everybody was smiling (except Sara, who slept most of the trip) and looking around in amazement and we started to loose the beach and palms out of sight. Fakarava has two entrances into the lagoon, one in the north and one in the south, where we went. As we approached the diving club’s huts standing on poles in the water the sea under us cleared up from deep blue to turquoise and on the last 20m to the beach we started to see the marine life under us in the crystal clear water. There were all kind of colourful fish swimming around, contrasting with the white sand on the ground. When we got off the boat suddenly a 1,20m long Napoleon fish approached us, coming so close to the beach that we could almost touch him. While we got our stuff ashore, the captain started to prepare the barbecue and the woman prepared the local delicacy, raw Mahi Mahi salad in coconut milk and lime. I went for a swim, the snorkelling mask in my hand, when I saw a small shark swimming straight towards me. I stopped, and only at 1m distance from me he turned around to circle around the reef. Another one appeared, and another one and after a while there were around ten of them swimming peacefully in the bay, among all the other fish and us snorkelers. It was impressive to admire their elegance, the sharks stood out from all other fish around here for their beautiful lines, swift movements, and fast moving eyes. Right off the beach the reef started and was perfect for snorkelling around. Underwater there was an impressive marine flora, the bright sunshine turned the lights on so to say and made the entire bay shine in its full splendour. Fish small and big, of all colours were picking the corals, hunting each other. It had been a long time since my last underwater exploration and it felt absolutely great here.

DSC_0072 DSC_0014 DSC_0016 DSC_0032 DSC_0035 DSC_0054 DSC_0056I got into another motorboat with more people and we were taken further outside to the beginning of the bay, where the water from the ocean entered the lagoon over the reef. We all got into the water, and the current took us for a tour. It felt so amazing to just lie on the water, the current gently moving me over the underwater landscape I could admire in peace. The more I got away from the shore the deeper the blue got, but I could see very deep and at some point spotted dozens of bigger sharks swimming under us, down in the blue of the lagoon. Rikkert and Gabrielle had gone diving and saw the sharks from very close, there were so many of them down there. In the meantime I drifted on, trying to get closer to land to see more colourful fish. Right after the diving school’s poles in the water the rock behind the poles was completely covered with a swarm of silver-white fish. The current got faster, and took our entire group out into the lagoon, where our boat was waiting to pick us up and drop us off again at the beach. Lunch was great, lying under the shadow of a tree watching the sea and tasting grilled fish, raw fish, coconut bread from the barbecue, merguez sausages, rice and vegetables. The leftovers were fed to the fish in the bay and the sharks started to fight over the best pieces. Overwhelmed I took a nap under a tree, listening to the wind and waves. Before leaving the place we took another snorkel tour, on the same stretch of sea as in the morning. The fish were moving around in swarms and I swam just right through some of them. Then we all got back into our boat and took off further south, to see the Sables Roses. This piece of the lagoon features sand shining in light pink under 20-50 cm of clear water, giving it its name. Coral debris covered the floor, sea cucumbers were everywhere. I went for a walk and swim trough this stretch of paradise, strolling between small islands covered with palms and thick vegetation. Drunk by all this beauty we took off in the afternoon for the ride back to our bungalows, straight across the open lagoon. Nobody spoke, everybody seemed to enjoy the aftertaste of this beautiful day. Back at the bungalows Gabrielle organised cold beers for the three of us, and I sat on my veranda enjoying it before taking a late siesta.

DSC_0091 DSC_0075 DSC_0084 DSC_0082The next morning I took a bike and drove up and down the atoll for an hour. There is not much to see on Fakarava, the land is just a couple of hundred meters wide, elegantly high rising palms cover most of it, a tar road in the middle leads over the main piece of land. The outer rim of the atoll is rough, the beach lined with stones, dry trees and bushes. The wind and waves are tougher, and although it isn’t inviting for a swim this hard side has its own charm. The inner side is the paradise landscape of every beach lover’s dream. As I packed my bags after a last dive in front of my bungalow I thought how I had never seen such a place before, and it even eclipsed the Piscine Naturelle on the Ile des Pins and the beach at Ouvea, both in New Caledonia. In just a week I had found the three most beautiful stretches of sea of my life. I must come back here one day!

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Note: if you ever manage to read this post, you should know that is has been a pain publishing it. I lost two drafts of it due to sync problems in the WordPress iPad app, and spent countless hours saving the new versions I wrote, uploading pictures, including these pictures in the post. It is over a week I am trying to publish it. The sad reason is that Internet connectivity in New Caledonia and French Polynesia is the worst I have encountered in any of the countries I travelled through. While mostly on a pay per use basis at hefty prices in hotels and restaurants, speed is painfully slow, and all kinds of services don’t work or show error messages. I often cannot use Email and Skype in parallel, or have more then two browser windows open at the same time. Strange to see how these 2 territories, that are in general very expensive to travel through and under French management, cannot get their connection to the 21. century, an exception in the world I have seen.

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2 responses to “The Polynesian atoll

  1. A dream destination for myself as well! Too good thad you did it. I would love to go Scuba Diving there.

  2. It is a dream destination indeed, it wasn’t easy to find the words to describe the beauty! Will have to come back!

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